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How to Make Small Talk for Networking Success - Matt Abrahams (Strategic Communication Lecturer at Stanford) - Self-Help E118

How to Make Small Talk for Networking Success - Matt Abrahams (Strategic Communication Lecturer at Stanford) - Self-Help E118

Matt Abrahams author of Think Faster, Talk Smarter

Matt Abrahams is our special guest for this episode. He is a strategic communication lecturer from Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, host of "Think Fast, Talk Smart" podcast, and the author of the new book “Think Faster, Talk Smarter.”

In this episode, we explore the significance of spontaneous communication, strategies to manage anxiety, the correlation between martial arts and communication, and tips on navigating networking situations.

Matt Abrahams

Matt Abrahams is a passionate, collaborative and innovative educator, author, podcast host, and coach. He is the Larsen Lam Family Lecturer in Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business where he teaches two very popular classes in Strategic Communication and Effective Virtual Presenting. He received Stanford GSB’s Alumni Teaching Award in recognition of his valued service to teaching Stanford Alumni around the world.

In addition to his teaching, Matt is much sought-after keynote speaker and communication consultant for Fortune 100 companies. His online talks garner millions of views and he hosts the popular, award winning GSB podcast called Think Fast Talk Smart.

Matt is especially interested in applying communication knowledge to real-world issues. In service of this goal, he published Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, which is now in its 3rd edition. His book was written to help people present and communicate in a more confident, connected, and compelling manner.

Prior to teaching, Matt held senior leadership positions at several software companies, where he created and ran global learning and development organizations.

Matt received his undergraduate degree in psychology from Stanford University, his graduate degree in communication studies from the University of California at Davis, and his secondary education teaching credential from San Francisco State University. He is a prolific writer with articles published for the GSB as well as Fast Company, Toastmasters Magazine,, Quartz, etc. He has also published several research articles on strategic planning, persuasion, and interpersonal communication.

⚡️ In each episode, Paddy Dhanda deep dives into a new human Superpower and gives practical advice on how you can apply it immediately.

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[00:00:57] Paddy Dhanda: Hello friend, welcome to another episode of the Superpower School podcast. I'm your host Paddy Danda. And on today's show I have the most amazing guest. And I say that with absolute conviction, because I've been following this guest for the past few months and I'm so honoured to have him today. He's a passionate and collaborative...

And innovative educator, author, podcast host, and coach. He's a lecturer at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business, where he teaches strategic communication. He's the host of the award winning podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart. And he's recently launched his book titled, Think Faster. Talk smarter how to speak successfully when you're put on the spot and in my own words He is the mr.

Miyagi of conversation and small talk. Welcome to the show Matt Abrahams.

[00:01:54] Matt Abrahams: Paddy, it is a true pleasure to be here with you. I have to say, I love your voice. Your introduction of me love listening to it. And you know that I love the martial arts, and the Karate Kid was an important movie early in my life. while I think completely untrue, I think it is very kind of you to compare me to Mr.

Miyagi. I will not be catching flies with chopsticks, though.

[00:02:15] Paddy Dhanda: I think there's definitely an element of wax on wax off because i've heard some of your interviews in the past and you simplify things so much that I think they're Easy for anybody just to pick up and try out. So I do like that part of the analogy. We'll leave the flies and the chopsticks then for today.

charge. Okay, thank

Matt's Background and Passion for Communication

[00:02:36] Paddy Dhanda: So, Matt, I would love to get to know you a bit better. And what I was wondering was if you could tell us about the younger version of yourself. So when you were growing up as a child, what was Matt Abrahams like? And how did you discover this passion for communication?

[00:02:54] Matt Abrahams: Well, as a young lad, as you might say I, the one thing that I think characterizes me is I've always been very curious, even from a young age, I was very curious and I was always interested in stories and other people's stories. I wasn't much of a reader, although I did read I was very interested in film.

I in fact wanted to be a movie director got into film school actually and chose not to go. That was one of the most interesting and challenging decisions I made. So I've always been fascinated by story. I've always been fascinated by language and the way people use language to influence others.

I tell a story that's very true. When I was around seven or eight years old, my mother asked my brother and me to have a garage sale. We had so much stuff. She wanted to get rid of it. A garage sale, yard sale. Not sure how that translates across the pond here, but essentially you put stuff out on your front yard and people come by and buy it from you.

And I grew up in a community where lots of people did that. And my mother instructed my brother and me to write a sign that was misspelled. So instead of garage sale, we inserted the letter B in the middle. So we had a garbage sale while everybody else had garage sales. And we sold more stuff that weekend than anybody else in the neighborhood .

And to this day, my mother believes it's because our sign stood out. I think people thought we were stupid and they would get better deals, but it was, Around that time, I came to see that wording, language matters. It can influence people. We had more people coming by, so I've always been interested in it.

And it's something that to this day, I'm still curious about .

[00:04:22] Paddy Dhanda: Oh, brilliant. Brilliant.

The Role of Anxiety in Communication

[00:04:24] Paddy Dhanda: And, you mentioned you have a passion for martial arts as well. Like how did that develop?

[00:04:28] Matt Abrahams: Yeah, I think you're fishing for a story. So I'll tell the story when I was 14 years old. I was asked by my high school English teacher, literature teacher, to go to a speech tournament. It was the first day of class, everybody had to stand up and say what we did that summer.

And I, of course, went first with the last name Abrahams. I always went first. And at the end of class, Mr. Meredith, the teacher, came up to me and said, You're good at this talking thing. Those were his words. You need to go to this speech tournament this coming Saturday. Each teacher, I think, had to send a student, so I was his student.

And he told me, Give a speech on something you're passionate about and at the time, and still to this day, many decades later, I'm still passionate about the martial arts. So I gave a speech on karate, or planned to. I show up 7. 30 in the morning on a Saturday. The room is packed. The parents of my friends are judging this event.

My friends are there. The girl I like is sitting in the back of the room. I am so nervous, Paddy. I shaking. I forgot to put on my karate pants. And if you know anything about the martial arts, the pants that you wear have are very loose fitting. You can see where this story is going. I started the speech with a karate kick and I did this kick.

In the first 10 seconds of my 10 minute speech, and I ripped my pants from zipper to belt buckle. It was horrific. I was totally panicked. It demonstrated to me. How important anxiety is in communication and from that moment on I have been fascinated by the impact of anxiety on communication I've studied it I've written about it and I really work to help people feel more confident and it all boils down to a 15 year old boy Standing partially naked in front of a class or a group of people I actually finished the speech and did pretty well not because I was a good speaker But mostly because people took pity on me and I finished the talk

[00:06:18] Paddy Dhanda: Wow, Matt, I was thinking about this story myself because I had a,

I had an introduction to martial arts, a very small introduction as well when I was a kid and I started judo, which is

a lot of wrestling and throwing.

And I remember one of my first sessions I went to. I was paired up with this young girl, and I never forget her because she was a little bit shorter than I, and she had ginger hair, and that was the most striking aspect of her, but all I remember is she threw me to the ground so hard that

I couldn't breathe anymore, and my cousin who was there, he never let me live that moment down, and I think it was Must have impacted me deeply because I never went back and and so I don't know which is more embarrassing, ripping your trousers or being thrown by this small gingerhead girl,

[00:07:08] Matt Abrahams: had a very similar experience in the martial arts. I was asked to spar with a petite girl at the time. I was a boy and I thought, Oh, I'm going to take it easy because , I'm a guy and she kicked my butt left and right. And that is a lesson that I remember. All the time because one it told me some things about gender inequity and the abilities of people.

And two it also taught me not to judge a book by its cover. I mean, she was far superior to me, continues to be to this day. And I just I, I was in my head thinking about stereotypes and preconceptions and I literally learned the hard way that , that's not the

[00:07:48] Paddy Dhanda: Oh, wow. And when we talk about conversation, Matt it's quite a broad topic. I mean, communication conversation,


The Importance of Spontaneous Communication

[00:07:57] Paddy Dhanda: but you very much focus on spontaneous communication. So, first of all, what is that? And why is it so important?

[00:08:05] Matt Abrahams: And why is it so important? So if you think about it, Paddy, most of our communication is not the planned type of communication. It's not the presentation we create slides for in practice.

It's not the pitch that we deliver. It's not the meetings with agendas. Most of our communication in our personal and professional lives happens in the moment. You asked me a question. You asked me for feedback. I need to introduce myself or others. I have to give a toast in the moment. Maybe I have to apologize or fix a mistake that I've made or even make small talk.

None of that is planned. It happens in the moment and it is enriching. It's an opportunity to collaborate and connect. That can be very exciting. But for many of us, it's very daunting. We don't know what to say. We want to. Sound intelligent. We want to do it well. So there's a lot of pressure in these in the moment spontaneous situations.

And so I've dedicated a lot of my past decade or so developing a methodology and helping people feel more comfortable and confident speaking in the moment.

[00:09:06] Paddy Dhanda: Now, we have this saying in the UK that certain people just have the gift of the gab.

[00:09:11] Matt Abrahams: have the gift of the

[00:09:12] Paddy Dhanda: I don't know if that's something that resonates in

[00:09:14] Matt Abrahams: something. Yeah, no

gift of the gap is said here

 And so, is this not just a natural talent that a lot of people have? Or is this something that we have to work hard at?

[00:09:25] Matt Abrahams: have So the answer is yes to both. The book I wrote and the work I do has several counterintuitive notions in it. And one counterintuitive notion is that we can all get better at it.

The ability to speak spontaneously is, like any other skill, one that with work, you can improve on. Now, there are some people, by virtue of experience, maybe personality type, who are more conservative might have a slight advantage in that they are more willing to take risks and do it. Or perhaps they're more extroverted and enjoy just connecting with people, but everybody has the opportunity to get better at it.

I have seen it in my own personal life with myself, with my family. I've seen it with the students I teach and the people I coach. So you absolutely can improve, but it does take work. And that's the second counterintuitive notion in the work I do, which is that you can prepare. to be spontaneous. And that sounds strange.

But again, if you think about athletics, if you think about music, you practice to do well. So a jazz musician doesn't just randomly make up notes, they actually play chords and progressions that they've practiced before. An athlete drills over and over again so that when they're in the moment of playing the game, they have tools and preparation that helps them respond agilely in that moment.

[00:10:42] Paddy Dhanda: That's fascinating because recently my son, who's 11, started high school. And and

when he started, He made one friend and this other friend really struggled to make more friends because I don't think anyone had really Taught him or given him this exposure to be able to go into an uncomfortable situation and just start making small talk so unfortunately He really disliked school for the first few days because he was just having such a hard time making friends.

And I just think

making personally, having seen that experience, it brought home to me just how important these skills are. And I wish someone had taught me a few lessons at a young age, but it's not something that school really covers. And and so I'm so glad. That you're doing this work because it's much needed.

[00:11:31] Matt Abrahams:

what I see younger kids being taught...

today is far different than what you and I did. So, for example I have a six, six and a half year old nephew. And when I hear about what he's doing in first grade one here, they're requiring collaboration. They're doing group work. They're doing, they're presenting that work. So it is something that the younger children are being exposed to much more than I was in my education, but you're absolutely right .

We don't have a formal way of teaching these. critical and essential skills.

[00:12:02] Paddy Dhanda: Oh, I love that. I wish they would do more of that here and so Sometimes when I introduce myself to people I tell them I used to be a professional introvert And now i'm addicted to conversation

I'm addicted to

through my work On this podcast because I get to speak to strangers every week and

week. Yeah.

I have reflected on what was the moment where I sort of switch from that more introverted person.

I still am, but I'm much better in terms of engaging and having the guts to go over to someone and speak to them.

go over to

But I guess anxiety plays a really important part in overcoming our fears. And I know you've done a lot of work in this space.

Overcoming Communication Anxiety

[00:12:42] Paddy Dhanda: Your previous book was very much. Focused on this, could you tell us a few insights on how could we overcome that anxiety, especially if someone at home is feeling a little bit under pressure when they're put into these situations,

put into these situations?

[00:12:58] Matt Abrahams: Yeah, absolutely happy to help and to share some ideas. I want to start first by congratulating you for really reflecting and becoming more comfortable with the uncomfortable.

That's a big step in many endeavors. I would like to share a few thoughts I have about and and extroversion . Many of us feel that when we are introverted, by definition, not good at communication. In fact, introverts, by their nature, tend to be very good at conversation.

They are very open to learning and listening. Introverts listen first. and synthesize and process, and it turns out in group functioning, those skills are really important. We need a blend of people who are more extroverted and introverted. So Introverts are not bad . You need introverts. In fact, introverts exhibit many of the behaviors that are successful in collaboration and connection and communication.

That said, introverts tend to be slightly more fearful of speaking than extroverts. But extroverts can be quite scared of speaking as well. I believe the fear of speaking in front of others is innate to being human. It's something that's just part of who we are .

But what's more important is that we can learn to manage the anxiety that we feel . And I use manage very carefully. I don't think we can ever truly overcome our anxiety, nor do I think that we would want to. Anxiety is helpful. It gives us energy, helps us focus, but we want to manage it so it doesn't manage us.

So in the first book I wrote, Speaking Up Without Freaking Out, I provide 50 academically verified techniques for managing anxiety. I do not expect every technique to work for every person. I'm happy if three to five seem to work. And they fall into two primary categories, Paddy. They first fall into symptoms and then sources.

How to relieve the symptoms. I'm curious, when you get nervous, Patty, what happens for you? I blush, I turn red, and I sweat, I perspire. I

[00:14:54] Paddy Dhanda: I probably start telling really bad jokes. jokes.

I try and sort of be really funny and I'm not, and I'm just like trying to fill the void with that stuff. Yeah. that stuff.

[00:15:04] Matt Abrahams: Interestingly, that's a technique that many people use.

It's a technique of trying to connect. And through that connection, you begin to feel more comfortable. And there are lots of ways to do that, that you can do that by asking a question. Asking people to contribute their point of view on something. Humor is risky because if it's not funny, it actually makes things more awkward, but it can serve, a good joke can serve connect .

So that's one way of doing it. So when it comes to symptomatic relief, things that we experience, the single best thing you can do is take a deep belly breath. If you've ever done yoga or tai chi, it's a deep lower abdomen fill. And the key is to exhale. It is during the exhale that all the magic happens, the anxiety reducing hormones and experience happens then.

There are other things you can do as well. You can do some purposeful movement. That helps with the shakiness that many people feel. The shakiness is from adrenaline trying to move you from threat to safety. So if I step in with big, broad gestures, if I'm standing in front of people, that can cause the shakiness to abate.

Someone like me just needs to cool myself down. We sweat and perspire because our heart is beating faster and our body is tensing up. So our blood pressure is going up. It's like when we exercise. So we get hotter. So you can cool yourself down and a great way to do that is just to hold something in the palms of your hand.

The palms of your hand are thermoregulators for your body. Just like your forehead, if you've ever had a fever and put a cold compress on your forehead, same thing happens. So, on a cold morning you've probably held warm tea or coffee in a cup in your hands and felt it warm you up. So there are things we can do to manage symptoms.

Sources also have to do with... Sources are the things that initiate and exacerbate anxiety. One way to deal with it is what you do, which is to try to connect with the audience. I do as well. I always try to have a individual conversation with somebody in the audience before I speak.

You can do other things. Get yourself present oriented. Many of us are made nervous by Worrying about achieving the goal we have. A goal is a future state. So if I can make myself present oriented, I'm less nervous about that future state. So talking to people is a great way to do it. Doing something physical, like light exercise, walking around the room.

You can count backwards from 100 by some challenging number. I tell people try 17s, listen to a song or a playlist like athletes do. I say tongue twisters to help me get. present oriented. So the bottom line is this. There are many things you can do to manage your symptoms and sources. You just have to work at it .

And eventually you will begin to feel more confident and less anxious.

[00:17:40] Paddy Dhanda: Oh, thank you for that. And some great advice there.

[00:17:43] Matt Abrahams: Great

Insights from Matt's Book Think Faster, Talk Smarter

[00:17:43] Paddy Dhanda: Now, I would love to hear some of the insights from the book, but I know we've got a real shortage of time and you can possibly do it justice in 10 minutes, but could you just give us a broad explanation of some of the key insights from the book?

[00:17:58] Matt Abrahams: insights Thank you. And I will try to distill this down as clearly as I can. So the book is based on a methodology I developed several years ago at Stanford's Graduate School of Business to help our amazingly bright students get through a big challenge they have, which is the teacher's cold call. When the professor looks at them and says, what do you think, several of us, myself included, still have nightmares from experiences we've had with that.

So the methodology has six steps. It's divided into four that have to do with mindset and two that have to do with messaging. The mindset starts with managing anxiety. I've already spent a few moments talking about that. The second step is to actually reduce the pressure we put on ourselves. Many of us, when we communicate, especially spontaneously, we want to do it right.

We want to give the right answer, the best feedback. We want to be the most interesting in small talk. And that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on ourselves. We have to adjust our mindset. And say, Hey, in these situations, I just need to get it done. I just need to answer the question. I just need to give the feedback.

I just need to respond to the small talk. Because when I'm judging and evaluating how good I am doing in the moment, how well I'm doing, it actually gets in the way of doing well at all. Because I'm dedicating part of my cognitive bandwidth. And we have limited cognitive bandwidth. Just like a computer can only do so much.

And the more windows and apps you have open, the slower it performs. Same thing is true with our brains. So if I focus less on judging and evaluating and focus more on just getting it done. I do it better. So I have a saying I like to say to my MBA students on the very first class. I say, maximize mediocrity so you can achieve greatness.

And these students have never been told to be mediocre, but they understand what I mean is that when you just work to get the communication done, you actually free up resources to do it well. So that's step two. Step three is all about seeing these as opportunities. Many of us, when we're told we're going to be asked questions, panic and we say, Oh my goodness, I have to defend my position.

I have to show myself as bright. I have to demonstrate that I know what I'm talking about. So we become very defensive and that changes the way we speak and what we say. Yet if we were to envision even challenging questions and feedback, et cetera, as opportunities to extend, expand, collaborate. It changes our demeanor.

We become more approachable. We give more detail. So the third step is really to see these things as opportunities. And then the fourth mindset step is listening. And you are a great listener, Paddy. Not only have you been great to me, but I've listened to other episodes. You listen very well. Most people don't.

And it is in that listening that if we listen poorly, we miss listening. potential clues and cues that could help us respond better. So we have to listen for the bottom line, what's really being said. Most of us listen just enough to get a gist of what somebody's saying, and then we start rehearsing and practicing and distracting ourselves.

So those are the four steps, anxiety management, Get out of your own way . See it as an opportunity. Listen better. And then the last two steps have to do with messaging. I am a huge fan of structure. And by structure I simply mean a logical connection of ideas. Many of us just ramble on and list information when we're put on the spot.

And that gets in the way of others understanding us. Our brains are wired to process structured information, stories, not lists. I challenge you and any of your listeners to think of a list that's more than five or seven things and how hard it is just to remember it, let alone process it. So if we can put things in a structure, and let me give you an example of a structure, the one most people are familiar with.

If you've ever seen an advertisement, you've seen problem. solution benefit. Here's a problem. Here's how our product or service serves that problem. And here are the benefits. And you can do the same when you're advocating for something, pitching for something, sharing ideas, using a structure like problem, solution, benefit can help.

And then the final step is what I call the F word of communication, not the naughty one, but focus. Many of us, when we are speaking in the moment, take our audiences on the journey of our discovery of what we're saying. We say more than we need to. In this day and age, the most precious resource we have is attention.

And if I am rambling on and on, as I feel like I'm doing in this answer, and I apologize, we are not focused and people get distracted . So the last two steps, the messaging steps are have a structure and be focused. I did pretty well, only two minutes to go through the whole methodology.

[00:22:33] Paddy Dhanda: Well, like I said, we couldn't possibly do it justice in the short space of time we've got here, but there's so many hooks right there. And I would love to explore those in more detail, but I'm going to have to get the book and do that deeper dive do that. Very quickly, Matt. As we wrap up this episode, I had a few real world situations that I was.

Hoping to put to you and just to get your hints and tips on those.

Real World Applications: Networking Tips

[00:22:57] Paddy Dhanda: So I've been attending a lot of conferences recently, and there's that dreaded networking word that people use, and I came across a couple of people who. I could see they were a little bit nervous about talking to somebody and they were sat on their own and I wanted to help them out and support them, but it'd be great to hear some of your tips on how could someone network in that situation where they are feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

[00:23:22] Matt Abrahams: Right. So many of us feel overwhelmed in chit chat and small talk, and especially if you have a goal is a purposeful goal to connect and drive future interactions. So I have three things I'd like to share about this. And first and foremost, it's very normal and natural to be nervous in these circumstances.

I had on my own podcast, Think Fast, Talk Smart a woman named Rachel Greenwald and Rachel's fascinating. She's a professional matchmaker and an academic, an interesting combination. And she shared something that, that is my new mantra for all small talk. And that is the goal is to be interested, not interesting.

Many of us go into these situations feeling like we're playing at Wimbledon and we've got to ace every point we make. Every point we share with somebody has to just land and has to be really interesting. And that's not the best way to envision it. Rather, we should lead with curiosity. I don't know if where you are, here in the States we have a game we call Hacky Sack.

It's a little beanbag ball that you pass back and forth with the goal being that it doesn't hit the ground. So the your challenge is to serve it to the next person in a way that it makes it easy for them to get back to you. So you're actually thinking the goal is to set the other person up for success.

So being curious, asking questions, paraphrasing what you hear, that's the way to be successful in these circumstances. My mother in law has a black belt in small talk. She was amazing. She would fly from the Midwest of the United States to the West Coast where I live, and by the time she got off a plane, she would have five or six best friends.

And here's how she did it. Three simple words. Tell me more. She would, as somebody was talking, she would just pause when they were done, say, tell me more, people would tell more, she'd learn more information, connect more. So, going into these situations, your goal is to be interested, not interesting. It's about the curiosity you bring.

Number one. Number two. The best way to start these conversations is to highlight something that you have in common. Maybe it's something in the experience, in the moment. Maybe it's something you came from. These networking events and conferences also often follow keynote addresses or panel presentations.

Comment on that. You want to avoid what I call the doom loop. And the doom loop is... Hi, how are you? Fine. How are you? Fine. Now we're no better and we're awkward. So start by highlighting something in the room. I was at an event once where I looked around and I turned to this person I didn't know and I said, did I miss the memo?

Everybody's wearing something blue and the person looked around and said, you're right. And we had a great conversation that started off that way. And then the final thing is when we end, we need to end well. Many of us end these conversations by referring to biology. I've got to go to the bathroom. I'm hungry.

I'm thirsty. You can get in trouble that way. I was conversing a while back with somebody and I needed to get out of the situation. I said, Oh, I need to use the restroom. And the guy said, Oh, no worries. Me too. And then the conversation kept going. We need to avoid these situations. So think about how you exit.

A great way to exit is just to signal in advance that you want to exit. Finish the conversation and then say thank you so much and exit. So by giving that person advance notice that you're going to go over there and talk to people, it prepares both you and that other person to excuse yourself. So chit chat is challenging.

There are things you can do to be helpful though.

Wrapping Up and Final Thoughts

[00:26:40] Paddy Dhanda: Oh, thank you so much, Matt. And talking about exiting well. I know we've run out of time. I just wanted to really just talk about a quick story. So how you and I got introduced was through small talk where I was speaking to Axelle, who's from Belgium. She's a founder of Drawify an awesome platform. And we just struck a conversation. We were having some small talk during the recording of that episode. And your name came up and I said, Oh, I'm such a huge fan of Matt's. And she said, Oh, I met Matt just the other week over in San Francisco. And and it all started from there. So the power of small talk has led us to this moment.

And I think that just epitomizes for me, the power of it and the experience. And I just want to thank you for being such a great guest, Matt. I know you're a busy man, so, really appreciate you taking the time today and sharing your insights.

[00:27:30] Matt Abrahams: The power of it, and I just want to thank you for being such a busy man, so I really

appreciate you taking the time

 It's the end of another episode. Thank you so much for listening. Please do connect with me via LinkedIn and drop me a message. And let me know your favorite takeaways from the episode. Also, don't forget to subscribe to the superpower school newsletter so that you can be notified of all future episodes. Simply visit the website, Thank you once again

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